One of the most important legal decisions in American history took place in 1857, when the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether a slave named Dred Scott (c. 1795-
1858) should be granted his freedom. The Court's ruling against Scott further increased the hostility and distrust between America's Northern and Southern regions, in part because it suggested that slavery could be legally instituted anywhere in the country.
Dred Scott was a Missouri slave who had been the property of an Army surgeon named John Emerson. In 1846 Emerson died, and ownership of Scott was passed along to the surgeon's widow. Scott subsequently attempted to purchase freedom for himself and his wife, Henrietta, but Emerson's widow refused to set them free. Scott then filed a lawsuit against the widow, claiming that he should be given his freedom because he had spent large periods of time with Emerson in areas of the country where slavery was banned.
Scott's lawsuit traveled through the American court system for the next eleven years. By the time his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, the slave had actually been purchased by a man named John F. A. Sanford. Scott's case thus became known as Dred Scott v. Sandford in the courts (official Supreme Court records misspelled Sanford's last name).
On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (1777-1864) announced the court's decision on Scott's lawsuit. Led by five justices who were Southerners, a majority of the nine-person court ruled against Scott. They declared that no black man could ever become a U.S. citizen, even if he was a free person. Since only citizens were allowed to sue in federal court, the Court decided that Scott had no legal right to file his lawsuit in the first place.
Taney also said that the federal government did not have the right to outlaw slavery in any U.S. territories. He claimed that laws banning slavery were unconstitutional (went against the principles outlined in the U.S. Constitution) because they deprived slaveholders of property. He also stated that slaveholders could legally transport their slaves anywhere in the country since slaves were considered property.
Antislavery organizations in the North saw the verdict as a horrible one that opened the door to slavery throughout the United States. Public criticism of the Supreme Court reached heights that had never been seen before. Northern newspapers denounced the decision as a "wicked and false judgement" and claimed that "if people obey this decision, they disobey God." Many Northerners also saw the Court's decision as proof of a "great slave conspiracy" designed to spread the institution of slavery into free states as well as the disputed Western territories. After all, the ruling made it theoretically possible for slaveholders to move permanently into a free state without ever releasing their slaves from captivity. Many people worried that the Court's decision meant that each Northern state might be powerless to prevent slavery from being practiced within its borders.
Southerners, on the other hand, were overjoyed by the Supreme
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Court's decision. For years, outsiders from the North had been demanding major changes in the Southern economy and social system. But with the Dred Scott decision, whites in the South thought that they finally had a way to halt the flood of criticism that had been directed at them ever since the passage of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. As one newspaper in the South happily noted, "The Southern opinion upon the subject of Southern slavery . . . is now the supreme law of the land."
Ultimately, though, the Dred Scott case ended up hurting the South in a couple of major ways. First, the abolitionist movement attracted thousands of new supporters as people became convinced that the Supreme
Chief Justice Roger Taney, who was part of the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled against Dred Scott in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case.
Court's ruling paved the way for future legalization of slavery across the nation. Second, the Dred Scott decision served to further divide the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party. Even as proslavery Democrats in the South celebrated their triumph in the federal courts, more observant members of the party in both the North and the South began to recognize that the slavery issue was threatening to tear the party in two. And if that happened, the antislavery Republicans might be able to take control of the White House in the next presidential elections.
Finally, the Dred Scott decision put the proslavery South in an awkward position. For years, Southerners had insisted that the slavery question in each territory and state should be decided only by the people who lived in that territory or state. This concept of states' rights, sometimes called "popular sovereignty," was based on the idea that the people of each state or territory should not be bound by federal laws concerning slavery. But when Taney stated that federal law actually protected the rights of slaveholders, the theory of popular sovereignty became a threat to the South. In the wake of Dred Scott v. Sandford, slaveholders worried that abolitionists in antislavery states or territories might use the notion of popular sovereignty to challenge the Supreme Court ruling.
As reaction to the 1857 Dred Scott verdict swept through American cities, towns, and countrysides like a wildfire, Scott himself, whose lawsuit had sparked the whole controversy, quietly faded out of public view. He and his wife were released from slavery soon after the Court's ruling, but his emancipation was short-lived. Scott died in 1858, after enjoying only a few months of freedom.
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